The Fossilized Book

Books are no longer books, at least not what was meant by book a generation ago: an extensive work made of letters that build sentences shaped into paragraphs, written on pages glued together and bound in covers. That, at least, still describes the yellowish copy I bought in 1985, on the New York City streets, of Fahrenheit 451, which sits tightly in my personal library.

But these days, my personal library grows dramatically slower than it used to; I don’t buy print books as often as before.

And when I hand out the syllabus to my students, we all understand something different. I want them to own Leaves of Grass because nothing replaces the pleasure of wandering aimlessly through it, but I know quite well that few will actually purchase the book because—miracle of miracles!—the full text is available online. In fact, I’ve resigned myself to the current situation to such degree that—here comes a confession—when handing out the syllabus to my students, I give them the links to classics I want them to peruse, say, Montaigne’s essays, Henry Thoreau’s Walden, or Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. That way I not only save them the trouble of Googling, I also point them in the direction of the most trustworthy and authoritative electronic versions.

Since they arrive in nonprinted form, are these books in my students’ eyes? What differentiates them from a blog, an email, and a news report on the web? Yes, another definition of book, by Merriam-Webster, says it is “a long written work that can be read on a computer.” But again, this is too loose! Is any extensive narrative accessible online a book? Not really, not always. Perhaps we are facing a conundrum connected with Plato’s metaphysics. He wisely points out the difference between universals and individuals. For instance, we all share a universal understanding of a table as a piece of furniture with a flat top and four legs. Obviously, each of us frequently encounters tables that don’t fit the description: They might have more or fewer legs, or the top isn’t completely flat. The difference between our idealized version of a table and any actual example we come across is the distance between the universal and the individual.

Might we say the same regarding the book as a cultural artifact—that is, that we have a universal view of what it is but break that understanding into particulars when facing various types of books?

I don’t think so. Truth is, nobody knows what a book is anymore. Or better, we dump too much into the word. Is a graphic novel a novel, or is it closer to a cartoon show on TV? Is a children’s book made only of cloth, with no words at all, designed to be touched, to be experienced through the senses, still a book? How about an audiobook of lectures on Don Quixote or on the history of God, like the ones I have just recorded, designed exclusively for listeners, not readers? Plato’s universal table is still the model—the semblance—against which we compare the individual tables reality populates our life with. But the book as prototype no longer brings all the particulars together. The result is that the word book has become empty, fossilized.

I should mention e-books because I know something about them. I am the publisher of Restless Books, a digital imprint devoted to international literature that reflects our planet in motion. For now, it does e-book titles only. I started it last year after a midlife crisis and what I would describe as a “hangover of immigrant angst.” I don’t believe things are falling apart, although I do sense a narrowness in the American mind. Having turned 50, I realized that the original dream I had, in 1985, of coming to the United States, of becoming a writer in an intellectual milieu that was open, cosmopolitan, and pluralistic was no longer true.

I hope it is clear by now that I am not interested in offering another jeremiad on the death of the artifact which, moving from cuneiform expression to papyrus, onward to the Gutenberg press and beyond, has been the prime deliverer of knowledge in western civilization for millennia. Others have done this before and far better than I am able to. For one thing, I am not among those who think our world is deteriorating rapidly and the past was always better. On the contrary, my view is that in general, things tend toward improvement, at least when it comes to human society. I don’t think people are more corrupt today than a generation ago, or more violent, or more egocentric. Progress is especially tangible in the technological realm. In my view, what we call a book has been broken into a number of objects that, in sum, are better, more suitable, more adaptable to our needs. Who will doubt that what we have nowadays is more dynamic, less cumbersome that yesterday?

It is often said that fewer people read today than before. I’m not convinced this is true. In fact, reading is done all the time: on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, through texts and emails. Literature doesn’t have to be for everyone; actually, it never has been. A book isn’t a success because it is embraced by millions; it is successful because it is well read. During my midlife crisis, I became concerned that only three percent of literary works released annually in America are in translation, in contrast with Germany, France, Italy, and the Spanish-speaking world, where that number might reach above 50 percent and sometimes considerably higher.

One of the titles Restless Books brought out is a photographic history of 125th Street in New York City. Through hyperlink, the viewer is able to listen to audio clips for each image, of the photographers talking about the work. Does the word book still apply to such endeavor? Another example is the forthcoming Letter to Yeyito, by the jazz master Paquito D’Rivera. Delivered as an epistolary autobiography to an unknown friend, the narrative is enhanced by a visual interview-cum-performance.

Stephen Fry once said that books are not more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators; and, I could add, than theater by cinema, and trains by automobiles. Again, my qualm isn’t with the book itself, which I don’t believe will disappear before our eyes. My qualm is about the word book itself. Yes, narratives distill unquestionable magic. Storytelling shall never disappear, for it is as essential as eating. What is troublesome is the appellation. To place all these articles under a single rubric—the book—is misleading.

Yes, the word is too abstract, too ethereal. As technology advances, our lexicon needs to be updated. Obviously, words are not created ex nihilo; instead, they are born organically, responding to specific needs. In my view, this is an example of such a need. Clearly, the name Restless Books emphasizes my endorsement, or at least my default affiliation, to the old-fashioned concept of book. But given the transformation the object per se has undergone, it is time to consider an alternative to describe it. Its desirable attributes—compactness, easy-to-handle portability—have not been sacrificed. What has vanished is the artifact itself, the unifier, the Platonic universal. In its stead, we have something malleable, amorphous.

So shall a new word be invented? After all, we have come up with so many related words over the years, like hardcover, paperback, trade edition, how-to, pulp, omnibus, and almanac. Why can’t we do it again? Should we coalesce around something available, like narrative? Or, alternatively, should we embrace multiplicity, calling each different object that descends from what we once understood as the source in its own unique way?

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